Story and photos by Timothy Scott
Driving across the world’s largest salt flat in Bolivia and spending nights under the clear constellations, a Travesia tour with Explora finds true solitude in a beautiful landscape with far more flamingos than people.
As I walk to the top of a ridge after dinner, the place where we're sleeping hidden behind a rocky outcrop, my headlamp is the only unnatural light for as far as I can see in any direction. No jets, no cars, no houses, no headlights. As I look up I see every possible star that can be seen here in the southern hemisphere, no clouds obscuring any of them. I've gone back in time to the way things looked for the first travelers who set foot on this land thousands of years ago. Just the Earth and the stars.
We're not sleeping in the dirt, however, or huddled in a cave. Along the route of my Travesia tour from Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, high-end tour company Explora has set up a series of unique lodges that offer an experience best described as “glamping.” Partly like camping, with heavy-duty sleeping bags on padded cots, but with feather pillows, hot showers and nice toiletries in the baths, plus exquisite meals to end days of hiking and exploring.
This night when it's just me and the stars, the group is actually sleeping in shipping containers that have been converted to guest quarters, bathhouses, and a dining section. Situated on a ridge with nothing but nature in front or above, the experience is a definition of “luxury” that has nothing to do with room service trays or bath butlers.
Escape From Potosi
Our tour starts out in the midst of pollution, traffic, and noise, however, to remind us what we're escaping from. Four travelers, plus the driver and guide, meet up in the city of Potosi, Bolivia, important since the days of the Spanish Crown for its silver mines. Twenty minutes out of town, however, red rock formations start appearing on the horizon and eventually we head into the Chaquilla area for a canyon hike.
This is a warm-up for the high desert hikes later, our guide Luis pointing out local flowers, cacti, and bright green moss blobs called llareta that can grow slowly over thousands of years. Small yellow birds flit about and occasionally we spot a viscacha: a long-tailed rabbit that is common in the deserts of South America. With a stream running through the area, it's lush with natural plants and domestic ones, itinerant farmers planting potatoes and quinoa.
After a couple hours of hiking, as we enter an area of sand dunes, we get our first taste of what sets an Explora tour apart from many others traversing this area. At the top of a bluff, amongst an abandoned collection of stone houses, our driver and organizer Felix has set up a scrumptious lunch with Bolivian empanadas called salteñas, sandwiches, olives, and grilled vegetables, with cold water and cold beer.
Across the Salt Flat – Salar de Uyuni
Most travelers who head to the dusty frontier town of Uyuni in Southern Bolivia are here for one reason: to explore the giant salt flat that spreads out for more than 4,000 square miles (10,582 square kilometers). It's certainly a bizarre and captivating site, blinding whiteness in all directions that provides a sensory dissonance. It feels like looking out at a landscape of snow or ice, but in the daytime it's warm enough to be walking on the crystallized salt without a jacket. The surface is so hard that vehicles simply drive across it all year to connect to the road heading south to Chile or the villages on the edges of the salt. On top of all that, we're located 12,000 feet above current sea levels. None of us flew here from a high elevation, so it's difficult to even walk uphill in this region without getting short of breath.
After watching a lone man shoveling salt into piles and stopping several times to go crunching across the rough salt on foot, our driver continues on across the vast flat plain as the sun goes down and the ground takes on a yellowish tinge, then pink. We exit the whiteness and climb up dirt and rocks to the village of Tahua, a village where our arrival seems to have increased the population by half. We park at what looks like a collection of stone houses with thatch roofs like any other in the area, but outside appearances can be deceiving.
Men bring our luggage into guest rooms, which are comprised of Marmot sleeping bags meant to withstand temperatures of 40 below zero, covered by alpaca blankets, on comfortable cots. Our individual baths on the other side of the courtyard are lit by gas lanterns and a bag of fine toiletries awaits. Something tells me this set-up is better than the typical village house.